Rethinking Islamism I: Turkey -- friend or foe?

Never do we stop to ask precisely what we mean by Islamism.

Turkey has been in the news after nine of its citizens were killed by Israeli armed forces on the Gaza flotilla, and will continue to be so, especially if its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sails to Gaza himself, as reports from Lebanon say he will.

It attracts our attention intermittently, this strange state on the edge of Europe about which we can never quite decide: is it a democracy emerging from the shadows of decades of brutal, military-dominated rule, a la Midnight Express, or a faltering beacon of secularism in danger of being snuffed out by resurgent Islam?

We have a sense that it matters, a truth that sage voices remind us of, although not frequently enough. As long ago as 1987 the historian Bernard Lewis was warning, in a paper delivered to a symposium held by the then pope, that "much will depend, for the future attitudes both of the Turks and the other Islamic peoples, on the treatment accorded to [Turkey's] application" for full membership of the EU. (The paper is published for the first time in Lewis's new book, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East.)

That Turkey's application has been stalled for years, partly because of antique fears about Mussulman hordes - the lifting of the Siege of Vienna in 1683 still evidently too recent a memory for amity to flourish - is evidence of the suspicion with which the country is viewed. But the stumbling blocks are not quite what they were. Officially, the line originally was that Turkey had to improve its human rights record; it had to be nicer to its Kurdish minority; and there was the small matter of whether the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in the First World War constituted genocide or not.

That these may seem quite enough to be getting on with is highly convenient for those who do not want Turkey in the EU at any point, whatever progress it makes towards meeting the conditions laid down by Brussels. For the suspicion now is that the country is turning into the "wrong" kind of democracy. Europe never had a problem with the Ataturk-style secularism that Turkey's generals rigidly guarded for so long.

But it failed to make the link between the two, just as Bush and Blair saw no connection between the secularism of Saddam's Iraq and the fact that it was a Baathist regime. In both countries recent free elections have shown that voters are irritatingly fond of religiously-inclined parties which are happy to operate within a democracy, but are less enamoured of the adjective "liberal" that the West assumes should precede it.

It was obvious even before the invasion that Iraq was going to end up exchanging one form of nightmare for a succession of others. Turkey, however, was not expected - not meant - to elect an explicitly religious government that has formed a warm friendship with Hamas and enjoys cordial relations with Hezbollah. Don't they know those are the bad guys?

However often it is qualified, however much the moderation of the ruling AKP is stressed, the insurmountable problem is that the party is Islamist. This has become a very bad word indeed, even before you even think of adding that which frequently partners it, namely "terrorism".

Okay: I understand why. Islamists want to set up a worldwide Islamic state, goes the train of thought - and they'll settle for individual countries while they're waiting for global domination. These states will obviously be theocracies - think Iran! think Saudi Arabia! think Taliban! - in which no one will be allowed to have a drink, women will have to wear burqas all day, beard-measuring will become a profitable mode of employment, and hand chopping will be introduced into the criminal justice code. Or something like that.

Never do we stop to ask precisely what we mean by Islamism. I think that's worth doing anyway, but especially so given that if every Middle Eastern country held free elections - which we want them to do, don't we? - we would almost certainly see rather a lot of Islamist parties doing rather well, thank you.

As this is the first post of what will be a short series on Islamism, I will draw this introduction to a close here but will end with this thought. If we are so fearful of the term Islamism that we do not begin to examine it, cannot see the multiplicity of different forms it might take, and cannot countenance any such ideologically coloured government being a full ally, still less a member of the EU, then we have already discounted as foes several ruling parties - and there will be more - who could conceivably be friends.

It would seem strange, and counter to our own interests, to start that list with Turkey, a fellow member of Nato and a country whose trajectory ought to be a cause for hope, not concern.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.